Pittsfield council committee rejects changes to public comment rules
PITTSFIELD — Two petitions seeking to change the City Council's rules on the public comment portion of meetings were rejected Monday by the council's Ordinance and Rules Committee.
In addition, council President Peter Marchetti, who attended the meeting, indicated he intends to begin enforcing rules or policies against "insulting comments" and "bad behavior" during the public session at the beginning of meetings.
Residents Craig Gaetani and Alexander Blumin, both frequent commenters during council meetings, had submitted separate petitions calling for changes in the rules governing the public comment sessions, and both were referred to the committee for review.
The tradition has been to ask speakers to sign up in advance to participate, to limit comments to three minutes per speaker, and that the entire comment period be limited to 15 minutes. However, committee members noted that the council president or a subcommittee chairperson can always set other limits or allow more time to speakers.
Blumin told committee members Monday that limiting the time to three minutes is "violating people's rights," and he asked where in council rules or city code that limit is written.
Gaetani, who over the past three years has often argued vociferously with the council president when told he had reached the three-minute time limit, specifically asked in his petition that the comment limit be extended to seven minutes. He also alleged that the limits imposed were contrary to the U.S. Constitution and to case law decisions in the courts.
"People feel they have no say in their government," Gaetani said, adding that he sees himself as "a representative of the taxpayer" at council meetings and his voice should be heard.
Councilor John Krol, a member of the committee, commented at one point that he has never had a citizen complain to him "that Craig Gaetani has not had enough time to speak. I think we give everybody ample time."
Krol also asked city attorney Richard Dohoney whether the council rules governing public speakers violated the constitution or civil rights. Dohoney said there "is no legal requirement" to allow any comment at a public meeting, except during public hearings. He said there are a number of boards in the state that do not allow any public comment.
A board is allowed to determine the parameters of the comment session through its president or subcommittee chairman, he said.
During the debate Monday, committee members noted that the 15-minute public session has been extended when a large number of people attended concerning an important issue, and there has been an effort at all meetings to ensure everyone has an opportunity to speak.
"I think it [the rule relating to public comments] has worked well," said Ward 3 Councilor Nicholas Caccamo. "I'm content with that."
Caccamo and others on the committee also said that, during subcommittee meetings, residents or others who have brought a petition to the council and had it referred to committee are typically given much longer to present their argument.
Gaetani and Blumin both spoke extensively on their petitions on Monday.
Gaetani eventually was told by committee Chairwoman Melissa Mazzeo to wrap up his comments in that he was repeating himself. "I am going to be fair to you, Mr. Gaetani, and give you one more minute, but there is nothing new in this."
Councilor at large Peter White then called for a vote on the issue, which led to a discussion among councilors and eventually to a unanimous vote to file Gaetani's petition.
White and Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers had earlier expressed a desire for the council to revisit the three-minute time limit and other aspects of the rules and policy to ensure that the public understands them and has ample time to be heard.
Caccamo argued that residents have ample other opportunities to express their opinions, through letters to the editor, social media and through public television programming — and by contacting councilors via email or telephone.
Along with the extra time allotted petitioners at subcommittee meetings, the issue of time limits becomes "a moot point," he said.
Marchetti told committee members he doesn't believe there is a reason to change the current time limit parameters, as in some cases it would mean the business of the council — the principal reason for the meetings — would not begin until late in the evening. There is always the option of the president allowing more comment, he said.
Marchetti added that he wants to also look at enforcing a policy against "personal attacks" by speakers. "Why are we going to reward bad behavior?" he said. "Enough is enough."
The committee also continued on Monday a discussion of all council rules and is expected to recommend some revisions to the full council.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.
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